Build an Indestructible Work Ethic

(This post is a variation on an article I wrote last year for an educational website called Fractus Learning.)

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A writer and computer programmer named Scott Young has written hundreds of articles on improving productivity, and his take on developing a stronger work ethic is the best I’ve seen yet.  The main idea is that work ethic is a large concept that is actually a collection of four smaller habits. Those four smaller habits are focus, persistence, immediacy, and professionalism. The key is finding ways to turn these smaller habits into values by which you live your life.

Find a way to customize any (or all) of the strategies below to fit your own personality.

Strategy #1: Build Focus

Focus means directing all attention at any given moment toward one specific goal. Focusing on a homework assignment means directing the mind and body toward a given task at a particular moment. There are two things you need to do to develop focus. First, remove any physical distractions.Focus is a lot easier without the constant temptation of laptops, smartphones, video games, and tablets. Second, ask yourself how much time you think you’ll need for the assignment. Then set a timer for 90% of that time period.  For example, if you know that you need a solid 60 minutes to finish a homework assignment, set a timer instead for exactly 54 minutes.  The shortened deadline will add just enough pressure to help increase your level of focus toward the task.

Strategy #2: Become Persistent

Persistence is just one part of a person’s work ethic, but it is definitely a major part. Persistence is your level of grit and tenacity; it’s the ability to hold on and endure. Persistence has to do with the ability to continue doing something when the task gets gradually more tiresome or difficult. Becoming a persistent person happens over time. The way to strengthen your persistence is by using a strategy called Commit 10%. For example, if you usually find yourself shutting down after 20 minutes of homework, the next time you sit down for homework, commit to an extra two minutes, and from then on, set a timer for 22 minutes each day you have homework. Now 22 minutes becomes the new baseline. You’ve just extended your persistence limit. Later, when that plateau becomes stale, commit to another 10%. Over time, you will have built up your level of work tolerance.

Strategy #3: Develop a Sense of Immediacy

Part of developing a strong work ethic involves building the habit of doing things right away. But avoiding procrastination is easier said than done. The key for overcoming procrastination is to set birthlines instead of deadlines. (Remember, procrastinators don’t have problems finishing tasks; they have problems starting tasks.) If you have an important project to complete, use a calendar (physical calendar or a smartphone calendar app) to schedule the time to begin working on the project. Once you start working on the assignment, wear a rubber band on your wrist. You need to snap the rubber band anytime you find your mind wandering off task. It’s a way of mentally training yourself to remain in the present moment. (A bit harsh, but highly effective!)

Strategy #4: Develop a Sense of Professionalism

What’s the point of developing a strong work ethic if you produce sloppy work? Professionalism is a by-product of integrity, and it’s reflected in one’s ability to produce high quality results. It’s not about becoming a perfectionist. It’s about setting minimum standards on what “good work” looks like, and meeting (or exceeding) those minimum standards.  A business owner with a strong work ethic makes sure to provide a client with the expected results by an agreed upon deadline. As a writer, my own work ethic includes reviewing my work for errors in spelling, grammar, and coherence. To strengthen your level of professionalism, try setting two deadlines, one deadline that represents when you will finish the task, and the other deadline to polish and review the work. That way you give yourself a chance to view the results from the recipient’s perspective before the work is actually submitted.

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